May 5, 2016

At the Met: The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bluebird" Radio, 1934; manufacturer: Sparton Corporation; 
glass, chrome-plated metal, fabric, painted wood.

I love good design, and seeing the attention paid to all aspects of a manufactured object: a thing in everyday use can be beautiful. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a display of American modern design from the John C. Waddell collection, gathered in a couple of cases in the contemporary galleries. The wall label informed me that modern design in the US was in a sorry state at the time of the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, but afterwards, with the inspiration of that exposition, a new effort was made by artists and designers and they produced "strikingly innovative objects". The radio above certainly is a stunning thing....

Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bantam Special" Camera, 1936; manufacturer: Eastman Kodak Company; 
metal, enamel. is this camera. They were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who was considered the "dean of industrial design", a leader in the field along with Henry Dreyfuss, whose objects are below, and a few others. These modernist objects have a dramatic and satisfying aesthetic presence. It would be nice to own this radio and this camera just to be able to look at them. 

Henry Dreyfuss, Electric Toaster, 1932; manufacturer: Birtman Electric Company;
chrome-plated metal, plastic, glass.

This toaster is an inventive combination of flat black planes and a big rounded chrome belly topped by an open rectangle. It's an improbable combination of elements that's visually exciting.

Henry Dreyfuss, "Big Ben" Alarm Clock, 1938; manufacturer: Westclox Company;
metal, chrome-plated metal, enamel.

I'm pretty sure I had one of these clocks when I was young. It's one of those everyday things that we wouldn't pay any attention to, but shown in a museum we take another look and notice its crisp design. Dreyfuss also designed the Princess telephone.

Henry Dreyfuss, Kitchen Utensils, 1934; manufacturer: the Washburn Company;
metal, painted wood.

I love the shapes of the handles on these kitchen utensils; they're utilitarian and amusing at the same time.

Henry Dreyfuss, Thermos Bottle and Cups, ca. 1933; manufacturer: The American Thermos Bottle Company; metal, glass, plastic, paint, cork.

This thermos features another surprising combination of shapes, as in the toaster above: a long, flat-sided body topped by a rounded cup, all painted red and black, like a harlequin.

Wolfgang and Pola Hoffman, Cigarette and Match Holder with Ashtray, ca. 1930; manufacturer: Early American Pewter Company; pewter. 

I wonder if designers these days are spending any time working on cigarette accoutrements. But these two pieces....

Donald Deskey, Cigarette Box, ca. 1928; manufacturer: Deskey-Vollmer Inc.; 
painted wood, silver leaf.

....are beautiful examples of the former glamour of smoking cigarettes. For a fascinating look at good contemporary design, see the film Objectified, by Gary Hustwit, which I wrote about here. An industrial designer has a difficult task: to make the object both useful and attractive; I'd like to honor those who achieve it.


  1. You'd think the wacky-dabacky bidniss would necessitate some glamorous accoutrements.
    May be a bit early.
    Breakfast just won't be the same without that toaster, now that I've seen a picture of it.

    1. It's pretty great, isn't it? maybe you can find it online or in an antique store.

  2. I always enjoy your forays through the Met. I have never seen anyone have a box of cigarettes on their coffeetable or any place else. I think that is a by gone era. I have seen funny little holders for the new vapors. They have to be upright or they leak. People invent all sorts of ways to keep them upright.

    1. I love going to the Met and discovering new things.
      I don't even know what the "vapors" are.

    2. They're what vapers vape.
      Quitting-smoking makes too much sense.
      "What alternative chemicals can I introduce to my most delicate atmosphere-interface, and with what gadgets?"